His Cheatin' Heart

updated 09/16/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/16/1996 01:00AM

AT LONG LAST, IT SEEMED THAT Prince Rainier's black-sheep younger daughter had found domestic tranquillity. In 1992, Monaco's Princess Stephanie, now 31, told a journalist that her then lover and former bodyguard Daniel Ducruet, also 31, had "brought peace, security and comfort into my life." Even Rainier, who reluctantly accepted the commoner as a son-in-law in 1995, had acknowledged the change. At last year's baptism of their children, Louis, now 3, and Pauline, 2—both born before their parents' marriage—Princess Grace's widower told the press that Ducruet had transformed Stephanie into "a happy and tranquil mother....Finally, this young man has put my daughter back on the right path."

That illusion, however, was derailed on Aug. 28, when—a mere eight weeks after Stephanie and her groom had celebrated their first anniversary—pictures of a steamy romp between Ducruet and Fili Houteman, 26, a cabaret singer (and, more notably, last year's Miss Bare Breasts of Belgium) appeared in Europe. Shot by two unidentified paparazzi on Aug. 5 and sold to the Italian skin magazines Evatremila and Gente, the photos showed Ducruet and Houteman—who reportedly had met a week earlier at a Belgian car race—engaging in energetic foreplay by a pool in Villefranche, a mere nine miles from Monaco. Even by the standards of haute Monte Carlo, the boldness was astonishing. "Discretion is more important than fidelity to these people," says one palace watcher, "and this was definitely stupid."

With Monegasques aflutter over l'affaire Ducruet, gossips wondered whether Stephanie's marriage was the latest casualty of the Grimaldi curse. According to legend, a 13th-century witch once proclaimed that no Grimaldi would ever find true happiness in marriage. And indeed, Rainier's children have not—at least for very long. Prince Albert, 38, is still single, and Princess Caroline, 39, whose first marriage to Philippe Junot ended in divorce in 1980, was widowed when second husband Stefano Casiraghi died in a boating accident 10 years later. (In January she suffered the abrupt end of her five-year affair with French actor Vincent Lindon.)

Officially the palace was keeping mum on all matters of scandal and superstition last week. "Neither Daniel nor his wife is making any comment to anyone about this affair," Ducruet's older brother Alain told PEOPLE. "The photographs are another invention by the Italian press. It's nothing."

Stephanie's actions, however, seemed to speak for themselves. According to the French gossip magazine Voici, Stephanie tearfully fled with her children to Roc Agel, the family's farmhouse in France, upon learning of the photos. There she was met by Rainier and Caroline, who, says Voici, pressured her to file for divorce.

Never one to play by the rules, however, Stephanie—whose previous beaux include Rob Lowe and French racing-car driver Paul Belmondo—has always shown a flagrant disregard for her family's wishes when it comes to Ducruet. Hardly an ideal mate for a royal, he had entered the relationship with a rap sheet that included two arrests for assault. Later he fathered a child with a lover who gave birth just 11 months before Louis appeared. "Nobody in Monaco liked Daniel, whom they viewed as not very intelligent and just not good enough," claims one royal watcher. "Stephanie really battled with Rainier for the right to marry him."

At the moment, it's unclear whether the princess will want to preserve her hard-won marriage. On Aug. 30, two days after the photos were released, she met with Ducruet at the Monte Carlo Beach Club. With the press at the ready, the swimsuit-clad Stephanie gave Ducruet a chilly reception but kept calm for the cameras. "They greeted each other with little kisses," says one witness. "It was as though nothing had happened." For now, the two are still scheduled to attend the official opening on Sept. 27 of their latest venture, a boutique and restaurant called the Replay Store and Replay Cafe. Just last week, Ducruet cruised by the site in his Mercedes and cheerfully waved to his store manager.

Still, most royal observers believe that it's only a matter of time before Ducruet is excised from the family. "He really was living in paradise: the money, the princess—he was almost to the point of being accepted," says a journalist who covers the royals. "He started to think of himself as untouchable and just lost his judgment."

JANICE MIN
JOEL STRATTE-McCLURE in Monaco and CLAIRE WILSON and CATHY NOLAN in Paris

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